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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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History: History and Fiction.

by H. B.
Volume 5, 1894, pgs. 255-259


In teaching history, besides the general object of personal discipline and development, which doubtless will in all cases be prominent in the mind of the teacher, our main object will be to produce some degree of retention of the facts taught. Retention is of two distinct sorts, --assimilative and mechanical. Assimilative retention, as pointed out in a former paper, is the great purely intellectual object we set before ourselves as educators; and mere mechanical memory will for this prove a valueless or comparatively valueless substitute. It is surely a wiser plan, more economical, more conducive both to permanence and to accuracy, rather to leave our undigested facts stored on the shelves of our libraries, where at need they may readily become available, than to cram them painfully into the unwilling brain to the exclusion of food more profitable. The mechanical memory may be indeed in some cases a gift of great value; but since the invention of written records its value in ordinary circumstances has fallen to a discount. The assimilative memory, on the other hand,--the memory which is alive, which consists of organized ideas, appropriated generalizations--is a memory for which bookshelves can furnish no substitute. By the fact of assimilation the individuality has been affected; the knowledge assimilated has become a vital and integral portion of the individual essence; it has become living knowledge, and henceforth, given light and air, and rain from heaven, it will grow and entwine itself through the whole labyrinth of human existence. In the mechanical memory the seed-corn has been hoarded up in the barn, as so much provender; in the assimilative memory it has been planted in a fruitful soil.

The main factor in the production of mental assimilation is to be found in the faculty of attention. And again, the first necessary condition for the arousing the attention is, that the subject attended to must be interesting,--in other words, that it must have contact, by way of similarity, contrast or contiguity, with our stock of acquired knowledge or experience further, it must arouse emotion--feeling, pleasurable or painful; and again, it must awaken curiosity--the stretching of the will to possess a fuller knowledge. In all these respects fictitious representation will be found the handmaid of history. It may be worth our pains, therefore, to consider shortly the conditions under which, in our historical studies, fiction may be legitimately employed.

It strikes us everywhere in our study of the beginnings of knowledge that mis-interpretation, and consequently mis-representation, of observed fact is one of the prevailing characteristics--that misrepresentation, in this sense, is one of the symptoms, perhaps one of the conditions of the growth of human faculty. As human knowledge advances, it passes into the domain of science, and as it does so we find that misrepresentation becomes steadily a diminishing quantity. This misinterpretive representation arises doubtless through the effort of the imagination to fill the gaps, to supply the missing links in the chain of experience; an effort of imaginative insight, probably involuntary, suggests an exorbitant analogy, an exorbitant continuity between the separated links of the experiential chain, and thus gives rise to a premature synthetic judgment,--a judgment which the facts of actual experience are inadequate to support, and which in most cases must be subjected to revision. Unlike the lower animals, whose natural position is one of stable equilibrium, the progression of man, who walks erect, is a series of stumbles and recoveries alike of the body and the mind. It is by such a process that human knowledge has increased. It is to such a use of the transcendental and erratic faculty of imagination that all the solid and stable results of positive science may be traced, as supplying at least one source of their origin. Again, on the other hand, in the fine arts, in poetry and in painting, we find a consistent, instinctive, and even conscious use of imaginative misrepresentation in a similar manner for the purpose of more pregnant suggestion. While in almost every word we use to express our thought we may find evidence of the origin of language in just such a reaching forth to the things that are before.

It is thus, perhaps, not too much to say that the advancement of the human race has in a great measure been co-incident with, and has arisen through the use of imagination--at first unrestricted, but later restrained and guided by criticism,--which has suggested sometimes falsely, often imperfectly and exhorbitantly, ever higher planes of thought and of activity; the seen has suggested the unseen; the effect, the cause; the universe, the universal order. And if the involuntary imagination has its uses, why not the conscious fiction? We may rest assured by the history of the race that fiction has its uses, its indispensable uses, indeed, which even the greatest Teacher, the highest Revealer of truth to man, has not seen His way to leave unemployed.

In the study of history there is large room for imagination,--the imagination that enables us to realize at once the oneness of distant times and unfamiliar conditions with our own, and also their unlikeness. Without such realization our historical studies are dead studies, our memory a retention of mere unassimilated facts.

To the practiced historian, doubtless, dry light, dry truth, is the more valuable and the more interesting: his mind is stored with many generalizations, his chain of history is made up of many familiar links, but also separated at numerous intervals by many familiar gaps. --gaps which his imagination has often laboured to fill; and he searches with hopeful and earnest toil for the genuine link of gold by which his chain may be perfected,--his imaginative generalizations substantiated. The beginner, on the other hand, has no generalizations; he possesses, perhaps, in a vague way, a few odd and unconnected links of the chain, uninteresting in their isolation. It is here, by supplying connection with experience, that the work of historical imagination, the genuine historical romance is of value. The truth that the world of the old time is the world of to-day: that the trust of childhood, the aspiration of youth, the earnest endeavour of manhood existed then as now; and the complementary truth that the time is changed, that the good and the beautiful have passed away with the vile and the evil, to give place to a new goodness and a new iniquity, lest, by its lapse into formality, its cessation of growth and consequent decay "one good custom should corrupt the world": this truth may perhaps best be grasped in the pages of fiction.

To complete our view of the relation between history and historic fiction it may be remarked that the main distinction between the impression produced in the mind in the one case and the other is not after all so great as might be supposed: in fiction the use of imagination is conscious and artistic; while in history, on the other hand, though less in evidence, its use is none the less present, in the perhaps, unconscious and involuntary form of historical interpretations. But, even in the reading of the most exact and scientific statement of historic fact, the imagination must of necessity come to our aid, and create within the mind a fictitious representation, for without such a representation it is impossible that the facts can become truly assimilated. In the romance we are skillfully guided by the hand of a master; while in the bald narration of facts we are left alone to find our way unpiloted through an unknown labyrinth.

While noting and commending the uses of fiction, it may be well on the other side also to point out the unassailable value of hard and definite fact; and the supreme importance that we should, in all cases, in fiction, but perhaps more especially in history, distinguish with the utmost lucidity, between the actual facts and the inferences and imaginative generalizations drawn from these facts: on this distinction, on the clear recognition of fact alone as the ultimate basis of all our knowledge and all our activity, any real usefulness to be gathered from our studies largely depends.

Historical fiction may be made to co-operate with the study of history in various ways: first, and perhaps most important, by illuminating the period under study and by affording connecting links between it and the past; secondly, by recalling and reviving the memory of periods already dealt with; and again, by setting up landmarks to mark out the yet untravelled path connecting distant periods.

As a master of historical romance, it will be generally admitted that Sir Walter Scott still holds his ground in the highest place. It is needless to commend his works. From Ivanhoe onwards, they will be found to interest and delight children, even so young as ten or eleven, in an extraordinary degree: t the mere reference to a known character in one of these works will be found to dispel the dullness of the history lesson like a flash of sunlight. Scott has many followers in the path of romance, though but few have reaches the all-round level he has reached; and few have displayed the healthy objective outlook, so notably present in the works of their master, and at the same time so important an element of healthiness in all children's literature.

Historical poems and ballads,--in which Scott again is strong,--and historical plays must not be left out of account. They will serve all the purposes of the historical romance, and have special advantages of their own besides, which render them perhaps specially valuable.

H.B.